School Lunches in the United States and Childhood Obesity
Emily StelmachSUNY Empire State College
Childhood obesity has increased at an alarming rate in the United States within the last several decades. While there are many contributing factors to this nationwide, one of more startling contributions are the lunches being served in school cafeterias. Sadly, this is a result of low district budgets and convince of meal preparations. Many school lunches consist of processed foods that are high in preservatives and low in nutrients. It is unfortunate that school budgets are not as health conscious as other nations like France and Japan. It is important that public schools break the mold of the stereotypical pizza and hot dogs and offer our children a more balanced, nutritious diet.
Budgets and School Lunches
In the United Stated, public school meal programs are largely funded by the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). The budget provided to each district is dependent upon the poverty rate in which the school resides. This unfortunately does play a role in cafeteria staff and supplies. According to Georgetown (2015), ” A food services director in North Syracuse, New York says that after the costs of labor, she is left with just 15 cents per lunch to buy ingredients, repair equipment, and equip cafeterias”. Sadly, this means many school districts will cut costs where they can, resulting in meals with a low nutritional value. Perhaps it is time for government funding agencies like NSLP to reevaluate their contributions and provide school districts with the necessary funds to supply children with the proper nutrients they need to thrive.
School Lunches and Childhood Obesity
Schools are responsible for providing children with the environment, role models and resources they need to be successful. This idea however is not always met in today’s school cafeterias. In many districts, especially those of a low income, students who regularly eat food provided in the cafeteria are met with few healthy options that are often surrounded by a vast array of foods high in high processed sugars, saturated fats and carbohydrates (Liou, Yang, Wang ; Huang 2015). While these options not only promote a poor diet, they can often lead to feelings of sluggishness and fatigue after consumption. It’s been argued that schools should not be the focus of the childhood obesity epidemic. However, studies show that sixteen percent of children ages 6-19 are classified as obese, and because children spend a considerable portion of their day in school, and consume roughly one-third to one-half of their daily calories there, schools are definitely a large factor (Whitmore, 2009). It is imperative that children are provided with a larger selection of healthy food options that are dense in nutrients including proteins, complex carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. Diets high in nutrients promote healthy brain development, cognition and improved mood, thus giving them the tools they need to thrive mentally and physically throughout their school day.
School Lunches in Other Countries
While childhood obesity has been on the rise for quite some time in the United States, others countries, have a heavy focus on the food their children consume during the school day. It is an example America should look at to reinvent the culinary choices that are currently being consumed by so many. Natural Life (2013) stated, “In France, school children are fed five-course meals reflective of that country’s culinary heritage and using fresh food sourced locally. Kids in Finland and Sweden serve themselves from a free buffet of healthy food. And in Japan and India, traditional foods are prepared using local ingredients” (p.25). Schools in countries like Japan and France provide diets enriched with fresh nutrients which not only promotes a healthy weight, but fuels the child’s mind throughout the school day as well.
An article by Kim et.al. (2017) states the following
A cross-sectional study using the 24-hour dietary recall data from the School Nutrition Dietary Assessment-? in the U.S. reported that participants in school lunch programs tended to have less energy-dense foods in comparison to non-participants.1 An internet survey with 11 to 16-year-old students in Finland showed that the intake of nutritionally-
balanced school lunches were associated with regular meal patterns and healthier food choices (p. 161).
Creating an environment that promotes healthy options could also encourage kids to make better food options outside of school as well, thus promoting a healthy lifestyle.
Consequences of Childhood Obesity
Childhood obesity has several negative physical and emotional side effects. Children who are obese have a greater chance of developing cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes at an early age (Wiley, 2013). Children who are clinically overweight or obese also experience a lot of ridicule and shame from peers. The social stigma that comes with carrying extra body weight can have a poor outcome on a child’s mental health and self-esteem as well. Children are being diagnosed with depression and anxiety at increased rates each year (Wiley, 2013). In order for kids to function at their fullest potential, it is vital that they receive well balanced meals with all the nutritional benefits they need to succeed.
What I Have Learned
Childhood obesity has many involving factors and negative side effects. While it is still on the rise, not much has been done nationally to change the diets offered in our public schools. There are many studies regarding school lunches and their negative implications on the health and well-being of children in America, yet little has been done to combat this disheartening information. Thankfully, there are many countries we can look at as a means of reference when the time does come for reform in our school cafeterias. Countries like France, Japan and Sweden have made an effort to promote nutritious diets in their schools and continue to exemplify what it means to live a healthy lifestyle.
I have also learned because the United States is consumed with competitive advertising; big brands like Lays, and Coca-Cola continue to heavily influence the food choices children make. Healthy food options are not only lacking promotion in school cafeterias, but in the media as well. My question involved asking what can be done about school lunches, and I found that the answer is to increase funding and school menu budgets. While this is easier said than done, it may be the key to making a true change.
Fixing School Food. (2013). Natural Life, (154), 25. Retrieved from
Georgetown. (2015). Retrieved April 2, 2018, from https://blogs.commons.georgetown.edu/cctp-638-mh1435/about/school-lunch-budgets/.
Kim, M., Abe, S., Zhang, C., Kim, S., Choi, J., Hernandez, E., & … Yoon, J. (2017). Comparison
of the nutrient-based standards for school lunches among South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. Asia Pacific Journal Of Clinical Nutrition, 26(1), 160-168. doi:10.6133/apjcn.102015.16
Liou, Y. M., Yang, Y., Wang, T., & Huang, C. (2015). School lunch, policy, and environment
are determinants for preventing childhood obesity: Evidence from a two-year nationwide prospective study. Obesity Research & Clinical Practice, 9(6), 563-572. doi:10.1016/j.orcp.2015.02.012
Whitmore, D.S. (2009). Do School Lunches Contribute to Childhood Obesity?. Journal Of
Human Resources, (3). Retrieved from http://eds.b.ebscohost.com.library.esc.edu/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=3&sid=5787f6c7-2165-4178-8c19-ff0318950cd4%40sessionmgr102
Wiley, L. F. (2013). No body left behind; reorienting school-based childhood obesity
interventions. Duke Forum For Law & Social Change (DFLSC), 597-128.